The Saturday races at Ironman made for a nice finale to the 2016 MX outdoor season -- a soft track (muddy early, dry-ish late) gave us a fun race to
watch as one more time it was Ken Roczen and "everyone else" in the 450 class. And while Ken Roczen is the "Now", in the 250 class
the "Future" was on display as 17-year-old Austin Forkner stamped his mark by taking the overall win. More on that below, as you might
be wondering about someone like Cooper Webb as the future...
2016 Pro MX Week 12 - By-The-Numbers Recap: Ironman
Since Roczen took off without a challenge from the pack (still auto-fill), let's look at what else was interesting.
This week it was Justin Barcia who kept Roczen honest, but nonetheless lost by 6 seconds and nearly 20 seconds in the two motos. In Moto 1, among Barcia, Eli Tomac, and Marvin Musquin, only Barcia could keep close in laps 2 and 3 (Lap 1 doesn't have an official published time, but according to the section splits, Barcia trailed Roczen by about 1.5 seconds after the first lap). Despite giving Roczen a challenge, Barcia only managed to put in 3 laps that were faster than Roczen's (prior to laps 14 and 15, which don't really apply since the race was effectively over by then), all in a row for laps 8 through 10 -- see below (highlighted Roczen in yellow and Barcia in blue).
Tomac on the other hand, got off to a moderately bad start, but managed his own 3 laps at a faster pace than Roczen's, in laps 7 through 9. Tomac did log a faster pace than the others in laps 12 through 14, but again it's not totally clear how impressive that is considering Roczen and Barcia had comfortable leads yet Tomac was locked in battle with Musquin in the last third of the race.
In Moto 2 it was more of the same, in fact it's hard to tell the two lap time graphs apart (except they were going faster, as you can see Roczen's line up in the same area as the legend in the Moto 2 chart). One difference is that Barcia, while again the closest to Roczen, couldn't match Roczen's pace at all in Moto 2 near the beginning of the race:
In the first 10 laps, of the fastest 3 non-Roczen riders, only Barcia managed any laps that were faster than Roczen's, in Lap 6 (just barely) and in Lap 8 (by nearly 3 seconds, surprisingly).
The Race For 5th
Going into Ironman, Benny Bloss needed to make up 13 points on inactive Christophe Pourcel to take over 5th place in the standings, and Phil Nicoletti was only 3 points back of Bloss. In Moto 1, Nicoletti got a slightly better start than Bloss (3rd vs 4th), and Nicoletti held on to that 1 spot lead at the finish, in 6th vs Bloss's 7th. Bloss charged late, but despite making up 3 seconds, 1 second, and nearly 4 seconds on the final 3 laps, Nicoletti still won by just under a second and a half:
So that moved both riders in front of Pourcel for the season, but Bloss's lead on Nicoletti dropped to 2 points. Although they didn't cover it much during the Moto 2 coverage, Nicoletti jumped out to a good start (5th) while Bloss was held up somehow (started 27th). Bloss would need to get within 2 spots of Nicoletti to force a tie in the standings (though Nicoletti owns the tiebreaker with 2 4th-place finishes to Bloss's 1 4th-place finish) or get within 1 spot to retain his lead. After a few laps, it looked like a foregone conclusion that Bloss couldn't come close to catching up and Nicoletti would own 5th in the final standings -- especially after a Lap 3 hiccup from Bloss slowed him down several seconds and made it even more difficult on himself. But then, Bloss found his speed, and he rattled off 6 laps in a row that were much faster than Nicoletti's (# of seconds faster, starting in Lap 7: 5, 8, 5, 2, 2, 2), which was aided by what must have been a minor crash from Nicoletti in Lap 8.
At this point, Bloss had moved all the way up to 11th, just 3 spots behind Nicoletti in 8th. But from there, Bloss ran out of steam, unable to make up any more spots, and Nicoletti rode his way into 5th place:
That's Nicoletti's best finish in a 450 season, as his previous best was 8th in 2015 (and before that, 14th in 2013). And Bloss's 6th was of course his only pro season, so he and his team BTO / KTM / WPS team must be very excited by his debut season. Especially the grit he showed at Ironman (very appropriate course name, in this case) in Moto 2, where in the last race of the season he was charging for the Top 5 spot and looking like a Top 5 guy. In those laps 7 through 12 where Bloss made up so much ground, the only guys consistently keeping pace with him (in grey) were Roczen (yellow), Barcia (blue), and Tomac (green) -- during that section everyone else is below Bloss in the sea of non-highlighted lines:
At 19 years old, Bloss is assumedly still growing into his 6' 5" frame and a 450 bike full-time. If you look at his progression over the season, he's certainly got the makings of a Top 10 or even Top 5 guy,
as he's been averaging just better than 8th place during the 2nd half, and if you replicated his results in Weeks 1 through 6 with his 2nd half results, he'd have enough points to be comfortably in the Top 5 for the season (158 x 2 = 316). So based on his rookie season--and it's not like he was a slouch as an amateur, either--the sky's the limit for Bloss.
One quirk was Canadian Kaven Benoit, who finished 11th (12 / 10). He wasn't listed in the predictions, but if he had been given a projection, it would have been in the low 20's (similar rating as for Jerry Robin, who was predicted at #21). From what I can tell, coming in to this week he had 2 races in the 450s, finishing 26th in 2012 and 20th in 2015 -- and since he's 27, there's no age adjustment that might have brought his prediction up (or down, if he were older than 27). Basing a prediction off only 2 results is never going to be all that reliable, but I would say that finishing 11th was still quite a good race for Benoit. Someday maybe we'll have international rankings that can cross borders, but not just yet. ;)
Clearly it was the best pro day yet for Austin Forkner, who nearly ran 1-1 on the way to his first overall win. If it weren't for a spill in Lap 10 of Moto 2, he may well have been able to hold on for 1st to sweep both motos. Instead he finished 1st and 3rd, with the kind of speed that meant this was clearly his day. It's way too early to draw long-term conclusions off of one race (or even Forkner's past few races), but the evidence is mounting that--as mentioned at the top--he may be the rider labeled as the "Future" rather than Cooper Webb (or Joey Savatgy, or Aaron Plessinger, or Jeremy Martin, or ...).
Some of Forkner's feats from Moto 1:
-He had the fastest lap time (2:31.9), which was more than a second and a half faster than the next fastest (2:33.5 -- Alex Martin), which was nearly a second faster than the next closest time (2:34.2 -- Savatgy).
-Not only did he have the fastest lap -- he had the 3 fastest laps, and of the best 15 laps turned in by the entire field, 5 of them were Forkner's. Other riders had a maximum of 2 laps in that top 15 (AMart, Savatgy, and Arnaud Tonus).
-He had the holeshot and went wire-to-wire, winning by 28 seconds.
-Excluding the last 2 laps (where Forkner had it locked up and was probably cruising), only 7 riders rode ANY laps that were faster than Forkner's slowest (riders mentioned above plus Adam Cianciarulo).
Webb got off to a bit of a bad start (13th) in Moto 1, and by the time he got going, Forkner was long gone -- not that anyone was going to catch Forkner in Moto 1. The top 4 finishers:
In Moto 2, Forkner again got a holeshot -- but this time he was tracked closely by Plessinger. Forkner maintained the lead as the two traded off who was faster lap by lap, with Webb hanging back in 3rd:
Webb had a crash in Lap 8 but stayed in 3rd. In Lap 10, as mentioned, Forkner went down, landing a bit awkwardly on a jump then letting his handlebars go sideways in some deep dirt. Even though it took him a while to get his bike upright, he had enough cushion to lose only 1 spot. But, Webb was close enough to zero in, and 1 lap later, Webb was able to make the pass, and Forkner eventually seemed willing to concede, perhaps wise to ride conservatively and let Webb by, after the crash, since 3rd would still get Forkner the overall win.
So who had the best speed? Well, if you guessed Forkner, you'd be right. He was 0.16 seconds per lap faster than Webb, about a half second faster than Plessinger and Savatgy (Savatgy's completed laps since he DNF'd Moto 2), and a full second faster than AMart. This adds up to more than 2 seconds faster than Webb on the day. And maybe that's why, at least after this race, Forkner looks like the future. That said, Cooper Webb will get the first shot to prove himself -- not only is he the reigning 250 champ, but he'll be riding in the upper class in 2017, and he'll have to show that he can transition to 450 and run up front with Ken Roczen, Ryan Dungey, Jason Anderson, Marvin Musquin, and Justin Barcia, and ... the list goes on. The rookie Forkner will have a year or two to hone his skills as a pro before he has to try to make the jump to the next level.